Did St Nicholas of Myra / Santa Claus punch Arius at the Council of Nicaea?

In many places online we can find the statement that St Nicholas of Myra – the basis for Santa Claus – was present at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD, where he punched Arius in the mouth.  So … is it true?

Unfortunately we have almost no historical information at all about any St Nicholas of Myra – our information is entirely based on Saint’s Lives of him, of which the earliest are 9th century, and the latest are modern compilations based on medieval collections.  All these Lives are really closer to folk-tales than to history, and they reflect the accumulations of popular legends.  Some of them do have Nicholas attending the Council of Nicaea; but they do not contain the story of Nicholas punching Arius.

The main collection of source materials about Nicholas is by Gustav Anrich,[1] and in this I found what I suspect is the answer.

Before I look at the data, let’s summarise what it says.  Sometime in the middle ages, the story about his attendance at Nicaea was “improved” to show him slapping “an Arian”.  Over time, this turned into a story about him slapping Arius himself.  The story is now a standard item in Greek Orthodox tradition, and is embedded in their handbook of icon-painting.

On to the data.

In Anrich volume 1, p.459, in the section devoted to testimonia, there is an extract from a Latin text (!) by a certain Petrus de Natalibus, a Venetian.  Petrus in 1370 was bishop of Equilio (Jesolo) near Venice, and died around 1400.  The text of his work reads:

Fertur beatum Nicolaum jam senem Nicaeno concilio interfuisse et quemdam Arrianum zelo fidei in maxillam percussisse ob idque a concilio mitra et pallio privatum extitisse; propter quod ut plurimum sine mitra depingitur.  Sed dum aliquando missam beatae virginis, cujus erat devotus, in pontificalibus celebraret et privationem mitrae et pallii defleret quasi zelo nimio fidei ablata: ecce, cunctis videntibus, duo angeli eidem astiterunt, quorum unus mitram, alius pallium sibi divinitus restituerunt.   Et extunc insignia reassumpsit sibi caelitus restituta.[2]

It happened that saint Nicholas, now an old man, was present at the Council of Nicaea,  and out of jealousy of faith struck a certain Arian in the jaw, on account of which it is recorded that he was deprived of his mitre and pallium; on account of which he is often depicted without a mitre.  …[3]

This tells us that the story had arisen by whenever Petrus wrote these words – it is really difficult to find much about him! -, and was known in the West, or at least in Venice.  So it probably had existed for some time at that point.  But at this point it is not Arius himself – only “a certain Arian”.

The next piece of data is an extract from a biography by an obscure Damaskenos Monachus, written in the second half of the 16th century.  Apparently he lived in the second half of the 16th century, and may (or may not) be identical with the man of that name who was Bishop of Liti and Rendini in 1564; and Metropolitan of Naupaktos and Arta in 1570.  He composed a biography of St Nicholas of Myra, based on earlier accounts, which he included in his Thesaurus.  The oldest edition of his work was printed in Venice in 1570.  Anrich obtained this information from E. Legrand, Bibliographie hellenique II (1885), p.12 f., which contains little more than you have above.[4]

Anrich states that the Vita of Damaskenos is a vulgarisation of the Vita by Simon Metaphrastes, who created the standard Greek hagiographical texts in the 11th century.  I don’t know if any edition of Damaskinos can be found online?

Anrich gives the Greek of the extract.  Yesterday I posted this, and an appeal for a translation.  A kind corrrespondent obliged:

Damascenos the Monk:  Life of saint Nicholas the wonder-worker:  Large collection of lives of saints, or “Great Book of Saints” by Const. Chr. Doukakis.   Athens, 20 December, 1896, pages 171-190.

10.  p.179-180.  After the king seated himself on the throne, one hundred and fifty nine fathers seated themselves at either side of him, both they and Arius arguing with much unease.  Saint Nicholas, noticing that Arius was about to quash all the archpriests and moved by divine zeal, rose up and gave him a slap that shook all his members. Complaining, Arius says to the king: “O most just king, is it fair, before your royal highness, for one to strike another?  If he has something to say, let him speak as the other fathers do; if he is ignorant, let him remain silent as his like are. For what reason does he slap me in the presence of your highness?”  Hearing this, the king was greatly disappointed and said to the archpriests: “Holy archpriests, it is the law, that whosoever raises his hand before the king to strike someone, that it should be cut off. I leave this to you, so that your holiness(es) might be the judge.”  The archpriests replied, saying: “Your majesty, that the archpriest has acted wrongly all of us confess it; except that we beseech you, let us unstate him now and imprison him, and after the dissolution of the council, we shall then convict him.”

Having unstated and imprisoned him, that night Christ and the Holy Mother Theotokos appeared in prison and said: “Nicholas, why are you imprisoned?”  And the saint replied: “For loving You”. Christ then said to him: “Take this,” and gave him the holy gospel; the Holy Mother Theotokos gave him the archpriestly omophorion (scapular).  The next day some acquaintances of his brought him bread and they saw that he was freed of his fetters and on his shoulder he was wearing the omophorion, while reading the holy gospel he was holding in his hands. Having asked him where he found them, he told them the whole truth.  Having learnt of this, the king took him out of the prison and asked for forgiveness, as did all the others.  After the dissolution of the council, all the archpriests returned home, as did saint Nicholas, to his province.

This is the earliest text known to me, and evidently to Anrich, which records Nicholas punching Arius.

Anrich adds:

Die Darstellung der Nicaea-Episode stimmt mit den Angaben des Malbuches (unten S. 463,15 ff u. 33 ff); die nur in den Hauptzügen mit diesen beiden stimmende Dartellung von Petrus de Natalibus beweist, daß der Grundstock der Legende mindestens ins 14. Jh. zurückgeht.

The presentation of the Nicaea episode is consistent with the information provided by the Painting book (below, p 463, 15 et seq u 33 et seq.); since only the more significant features of these two versions agree with the story as given by Petrus de Natalibus, this shows that the foundation of the legend goes back at least to the 14th century.

The “Painting book” (I don’t know the English name of this work: in German it is the Malbuch) is the 18th century manual of iconography from Mount Athos, produced by Dionysius of Foura.  This gives the legends to be attached to icons.  The first reads as follows:

“The holy and ecumenical 1st Synod in Nicaea….
And Arius, standing, also in hieratic vestment, and standing before him, Saint Nicholas with arm outstretched to slap him.”

The second one says:

“The saint in prison, receiving the gospel from Christ and the omophorion from the Holy Mother. – Prison, and at the centre is the saint and Christ at his right holding a gospel; at his left the Theotokos holding an omphorion: they are giving these to him.”

The presence of the item in the Handbook shows that the topic is a standard one for icons.  So we may presume that the story reaches us today from Greek Orthodox sources, for whom it is a traditional motif, depicted in their churches.

Here is an example of the scene in a fresco from the Soumela monastery (via Livius.org):

St Nicholas of Myra slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea.  Fresco at Soumela.  By Marco Prins. Via Livius.org.
St Nicholas of Myra slapping Arius at the Council of Nicaea. Icon at Soumela. Via Livius.org.

To summarise again: there is no ancient evidence whatever that St Nicholas punched or slapped Arius at the First Council of Nicaea.  The story is not found in any text before the late 14th century, and even that one mentions only “a certain Arian”.  In the next two centuries the legend mutates into Nicholas slapping Arius; and is then disseminated in works of popular fiction, and by the paintings of icons.  It has no historical basis whatever.

UPDATE: I am advised that ράπισμα means slap, not punch.  My correspondent adds: ” it was a slap intended to shock Arius back to his senses”.

  1. [1]G. Anrich, Hagios Nikolaos: Der Heilige Nikolaos in der Griechischen Kirche, 2 vols, 1913.  Accessible to Americans at Hathi Trust.
  2. [2]Anrich gives a reference: Petrus de Natalibus, Catalogus sanctorum et gestorum eorum ex diversis voluminibus collectus, Lugduni 1508, Fol. VII.  The English title appears to be Legends of the Saints.  Various editions are present on Google Books.  In the 1543 edition, the text is on folio Vb, at the top of the right-hand column.
  3. [3]Translation is mine.
  4. [4]This volume can be found online at Google Books, but not without considerable effort.  It is here (US only).

27 thoughts on “Did St Nicholas of Myra / Santa Claus punch Arius at the Council of Nicaea?

  1. Well, I’m sad there’s no historical basis, although it’s great as a Just So story for why he’s not listed among the Council attendees.

    But it’s a darned good legend!

    OTOH, the idea that Santa wears red and white and has a flying sleigh because of shamanic mushrooms is something with no historical basis, and with a legend that only appeals to drugged out hippies. (Especially since Santa rides a perfectly normal white horse in Europe, as far as I’ve ever seen.)

  2. Oh, and I like the turban. Makes Arius look Muslim, which could be a nice comment on the related theological positions.

  3. I think the artist was having difficulties portraying both saintliness (the sad holy look) and a good solid slap (it actually looks like he’s going for an NCIS-style slap upside the back of the head, which is more admonitory and tends to come from teaching or parental authority).

    Likewise, the artist is doing the normal stylized hand, which doesn’t work well for portraying yanking Arius’ wrist to make sure he doesn’t move awkwardly.

    Icon art just isn’t meant for “action scenes.” You would have to go back to an older, more Greco-Roman battle style.

  4. I’m not sure that Greco-Roman battle depictions are much more realistic than Byzantine icons, alas. The decorous impressions of hoplite battles on Greek vases seem to me to be a world away from the rugby scrum (‘othismos’, literally ‘shoving’) that such encounters normally degenerated into. Presumably that’s why the Thebans under Epaminondas chose a pack 50 men deep, as opposed to the 8-man deep scrum favoured by lesser teams like the Athenians.

  5. The fresco at Soumela (I am not sure of its date) doesn’t strike me as an icon. Just a depiction in fresco.
    Icons, as they evolved are actually NOT supposed to be realistic representations (why their shadows, perspective etc are back to front) but to encourage people to look past the natural to the spiritual realm.

  6. Thank you everyone for these comments!

    @Suburbanbanshee: I think that denying that Christ was God is an obvious link between Arianism and Islam. But possibly everyone wore a turban at that date, whatever it was?

    Thanks @IG! I don’t know anything about iconography.

  7. That link from JS on whether Nicholas was at Nicaea is interesting. I have an email from the St Nicholas Center discussing sources. It’s a whole separate subject to get into!

  8. Yes it would be nice to lay out the historical data such as we have it. The difficulty here it seems to me, is that several Nicholases are caught up in the tangle of the St Nicholas tradition. That and a few fervent imaginations!

  9. Thank you for getting this deeply involved in any case!

    Recall that Blom in Annex II notes a reference by Theodoros Anagnostes (? – 518)in a 13th-c. MS. of his Historia Tripartita to Nikolaos’s participation in Nicea (325), saying that Ansich deems it an interpolation from after the reference in Nikitas of Paphlagonia (? – 890), while Cioffari considers it authentic.

    I do not have access to Cioffari and have not (yet) tried to follow this up in the online Ansich scan. But an authentic early sixth-century reference would bring us a lot closer to Nicea. (John Sandinopoulos in the interesting linked post does not mention Theodoros Anagnostes by name, and I have no idea how this 13th-c. MS. of his Historia Tripartita relates to the three of eleven mediaeval copies of a list or lists of those attending Nicea which include St. Nicholas which he does mention.)

    Petrus’ “propter quod ut plurimum sine mitra depingitur” is an odd and presumably anachronistic detail, as (if I am not mistaken) the mitre is a late, western invention in terms of liturgical dress. I suppose this could be (or recount an already existing)anachronistic (Latin) attempt to apply an account of St. Nicholas striking an Arian, or indeed, Arius. Again, I suppose the move could be a sort of cautious generalizing one from ‘Arius’ to a less specific “quemdam Arrianum”.

    That is to say, it is conceivable that this is the earliest surviving attestation of a (much?) earlier account of St. Nicholas slapping Arius. How likely that is, or how one is to determine how likely it might be, I do not know.

    With respect to Arianism and Islam, my understanding of Arianism is that it (or some versions or stages of it) take(s) Christ to be the incarnation of a unique created demiuge who then created all else (including the angels) – a ‘companion of God’ par excellence of a sort which most Islamic thought would emphatically reject. Thus, if Arianism and Islam have a denial of the Divinity of Christ in common, Islam and orthodox Christianity have a denial of Christ as any such demiurgic first creature in common.

  10. What I wanted to do was get hold of Niketas of Paphlagonia. But I have failed utterly in trying to do so. I don’t know if his text even exists in print.

  11. i was wondering the importance of a bishop from Turkey to a roman council is talked of anywhere in the literature

  12. Probably the easiest thing to say is, what some people consider history isn’t history at all. Myths, legends, and folklore tend to have spoiled the soup, so to speak.

  13. Thank you for the great article!

    Now, the Greek word translated as “archpriests” is most likely αρχιερεύς, which in this context should be more precisely rendered as ‘hierarchs’, that is, the attending bishops.

    For what is worth, it was the same word used in the Old Testament and in the Gospels to name the High Priests. In St Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews it is applied to Christ Himself, and in later ecclesiastic usage it means either a bishop, in that he ordains priests and rule over them, or a dignity bestowed to a presbyter, that is, an “arch-presbyter” or, in short, an archpriest, a high rank priest.

    So although the rendering “archpriest” is absolutely correct as regards etymology, in historical context it results ambiguous or misleading.

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